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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Fierce budget battle at City Hall

The headlines tell the story. Chancellor Talks of Cuts for Schools, Amid Hissing; City Council spanks Chancellor Klein over school aid cuts; School Budget Cuts Controversy Boils Over; Hundreds Of Parents Ejected From City Council Hearing.

Yesterday, it was standing room only at City Hall, as Chancellor Klein and Dept. Grimm testified for nearly four hours before the City Council on the budget cuts for schools proposed for next year.

Klein was uncharacteristically subdued, as he was gently but firmly admonished by Speaker Quinn, angrily confronted by Education committee chair Robert Jackson and strongly challenged by nearly every other member of the Education and Finance Committees.

Quinn began by saying that the Council “cannot in good faith support” the amount of cuts to the classroom proposed by the administration. “We are going to work hard to find other places to cut to get monies back to the classroom” she said; “we have no more important job.” She asked Klein, “Aren’t there choices to be made that would have less impact on schools?” and suggested reductions in the private contracts budget, which is slated to rise another $250 million next year. Several members said testing might be another place to look. At one point, Kathleen Grimm admitted that the city's “diagnostic assessments” were costing $24.1 million a year.

Robert Jackson said the actual hit to schools was “more than $180 million” rather than the $99 million as first suggested in news accounts, and that the schools actually need $200 million just to keep services level, given increased costs. And why, he asked, did the city need to go back on its promise made last year to fully fund the CFE decision, given a city budget surplus of $4-5 billion– while the State fulfilled its promise, despite a large deficit?

Several members echoed these concerns, pointing out how difficult it would be to go back to Albany next year, and demand another funding increase when the city had reneged on its side of the bargain. John Liu also mentioned the possibility of tinkering with the property tax rebate of $400, which will cost the city another $250 million. (Not to mention the planned reductions in the property tax rate, which will cost another $1 billion in revenues.)

Many were critical of the way in which the Chancellor appeared to be manipulating the situation, pitting parents against each other by threatening to cut high performing, mostly white schools by a large percentage if Albany didn’t give him more “flexibility” with the Contract for Excellence funding meant to go primarily to low-performing schools.

Jackson said Klein was “holding a gun up to Albany’s head” and called it a "divide and conquer" strategy: "Some people would say rich versus poor...those that are white majority versus minority."

The Chancellor’s presentation (in pdf) showed increased funding for schools from the city in past years; a point he returned to several times in trying to justify the cuts for next year. (This excuse is a little like a student saying, “I did my homework last year; why should I have to do it this year?”) Needless to say, the Council wasn’t buying his line.

Speaker Quinn asked Klein directly what extra funding would be needed to avoid any cuts to schools – the $99 million he says he is taking directly from school budgets, or the $190 million that the Council analysis shows is actually being imposed in “back door” cuts, as new expenses are going to be shifted to the school level, such as computer repairs and the food consumed by students whose parents don’t fill out free lunch forms.

The Chancellor replied he would need an extra $400 million to avoid any cuts to schools– a figure that made no sense to any one. In fact, Council Member Oliver Koppel said at one point, "To tell you the truth, I don't believe you…You should hire a new accountant.”

There were a lot of other discrepancies in the accounting. Instead of the $200 million in cuts Klein claimed to be taking “centrally and in other non-school budgets”, the analysis by the City Council staff posted here shows that only about $12 million is to be cut directly from Tweed, primarily through a hiring freeze. (Meanwhile, see this blog posting from Eduwonkette which shows a steady increase in the headcount at Tweed over the last four years.)

Klein also admitted that his personal staff of 8 was costing $968,000 – averaging $121,000 each, rather than the $1,117 total claimed in the budget submitted to the Council, and that the accountability office now has a head count of 97, rather than only 18 staffers, as was in the same document.

The Chancellor added that there would be a substantial increase next year -- $154 million – in the so-called “indispensable initiatives” of the administration, most of which were unspecified, but include even more new small schools, the Leadership Academy, etc. (By the way, this does not include the increased payments to charter schools – which have totaled nearly $100 million more in funding over the last two years.)

It was a difficult day for the Klein, who usually likes to wrap himself in the mantle of Martin Luther King and Brown Vs. Board of Education, as he tried to explain why he wants to change the rules so that the portion of state aid allocated through the Contracts for Excellence should be allotted to high-performing schools in the exact same ratio as struggling schools. He seemed to claim that with his highly-flawed “Fair student funding” formula he’s done everything necessary to help these schools -- and to narrow the achievement gap.

Clearly this is an administration that has run out of new ideas – and run out of excuses.

There were hisses and boos from the audience throughout, and at one point, a large contingent of parents in the balcony started chanting “Chancellor Klein, don’t cut a dime” and was ejected by the guards.

See NY Times, Daily News, CBS news, NY1 and video clips from ABC news.

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